« ElőzőTovább »
or an historian, for poets and historians had not abandoned their right to set down their whole thought on paper. So the word "dared" defines Thackeray's conception of the novel as a subaltern and mercenary literary form whose province and limitations have been settled beyond further dispute. And the application of the adjective “complete” to a man's portrait seems to us to indicate a mind naturally prone to superficial thinking. Pater could not have written a portrait of a complete man, for he would have known that it is impossible to paint the complete portrait of a man; and then Fielding's portrait of "Tom Jones” is singularly incomplete. It would have seemed to Pater if he had written on the subject to be summary, and singularly on the surface, whereas Thackeray seems to have seen no more than the average man sees in the book; what struck him in reading "Tom Jones” is what strikes the casual mind. He seems to have thought that Fielding had painted the portrait of a complete man (I don't remember if the words used are "complete portrait of a man" or the "portrait of a complete man”), because Fielding had spoken openly of Tom Jones's sexual instincts. The hungry and the lustful man always seems to us the most human, but lust and hunger are not especially human qualities. The common bull terrier may be as lustful and as hungry as any man; the qualities which man does not share in equal degree with the common bull terrier are a conscience and an intelligence; and as Fielding wished to write comedy, not tragedy, he omitted all mention of a conscience. In one of the little moralities which preface the chapters the word no doubt occurs, but he omitted to make us feel that Tom Jones ever suffered from a conscience, and on the question of Tom's intelligence it is not probable that Fielding ever bestowed even a passing thought; his artistic sense led him aright and he instinctively omitted every faintest indication of these essentially human qualities in his Portrait of a Complete Man; he wiseiy omitted them, for he wished to write comedy, not tragedy, and psychology is not compatible with comedy.
Thackeray's remark about Tom Jones is characteristic of all his remarks: it is at once shallow and evasive, and therefore popular in the newspapers. If he had said: "Fielding's portrait is singularly incomplete, for it is comprised entirely of lust and physical courage, but as these are immortal instincts the man lives, in the shallows of animal life, it is true, but he lives," he would
have succeeded in defining the merits of Fielding's novel in words which would not have been freely quoted in the newspapers.
“Tom Jones” is drawn in such fine, bold outline that it takes as high a place in literature as the drawings of Rowlandson and Gillray in pictorial art. But this by the way. The character of the novel which it is more to our purpose to notice is Squire Western, for on him hangs the long tradition of our fiction. Squire Western is described in the mere habit of his life; from him we learn facts concerning the squirearchy of 1750—how they swore, and how they drank, and how they were immersed in sport beyond all other considerations. He is the novel of manners which, at the beginning of this century, was carried to its conclusion by Miss Austen; for consciously or unconsciously, this lady resolved to carry to its logical conclusion the novel which Fielding had indicated in "Tom Jones.” The casual reader perceives no character resembling Tom Jones among her characters, and he will seek vainly for a Squire Western; the casual reader is deceived by a difference of appearance, and he will have to make an effort if he would understand why a change from the drunken squire to the demure domesticities of Mr. Woodhouse does not constitute any change of intention or principle.
Miss Austen's genius lay on the negative side, in an unfailing sense of her limitations, and on the affirmative side in a lively sense of the pathos of domestic life. Some one has called her a prose Shakespeare, and this remark has been almost as much quoted in the newspapers as Thackeray's complete man. It would be difficult to differentiate between the two remarks; they are perfect examples of the phrases which men devise as a means of escape from thought. Was it not Lord Macaulay who called Miss Austen a prose Shakespeare ? Even when we have imagined Shakespeare's poetry turned into prose we are still thinking of works that are the opposite to Miss Austen's. For as has been already said, every one of Shakespeare's tragedies symbolizes a human passion, whereas the genius of Miss Austen is that no faintest trace of passion should appear. The author of this strange remark must have been merely aware of some extraordinary excellence, the exact nature of which escaped him, and it is such vague admiration that a work of art provokes in the common heart; we stop to admire, and to ponder at the power of art to awaken reverence even in the mind which fails to understand.
Still more than Fielding's, Miss Austen's genius was to confine herself to the representation of man in the habit of his life, unmoved by human passions; and it is our sense of the tragedy beneath the treacherous calm that induces us to read the three pages which she devotes to the discussion of which lady should get into the carriage first, and the endless disquisitions of an elderly gentleman on the excellencies of gruel as an evening beverage. Never is the mask dropped. If it were, though only for a moment, the mystery of the mask could never be recaptured. It is Miss Austen's plausive lying that induces us to bear with her for a little, and allows us, when we put a book of hers down, to say that her novels are as perfect as they are tedious. Miss Austen dared everything; she was far more daring than Fielding, for she dared to be tiresome, and to dare that is the surest sign of genius.
In limiting the novel of manners strictly to manners, rivalry with Miss Austen was impossible. To say less than she said was to say nothing at all. On the other side of Miss Austen, the novel of instinct and of passion-over the threshold of which Richardson had merely ventured—was beyond Thackeray's reach, so he did what his personal limitations and the circumstances of his life willed him to do, he introduced exciting events into the novel of manners. Becky Sharp is mildly melodramatic; we see her merely as we see a fly buzzing in a glass; of the workings of her mind we know nothing. In Tom Jones, Fielding omitted all qualities except lust and courage; Thackeray omits both from hisportrait of a woman, and he does not include either a conscience or an intelligence. Being a woman, physical courage might be decmed unessential, but a sexual temperament is necessary in an adventuress, for to succeed in gallantry a natural taste for gallantry is requisite. Shakespeare no doubt had this in his mind when he conceived Cleopatra in the rhapsody of all her passion, and Mme. La Pompadour, who can speak with the certainty of experience on such a matter, writes to her friend, Madame Hudon, in terms too eighteenth-century for quotation in the nineteenth. We imagine Becky Sharp as we please, a cold or a passionate woman; and only by exterior signs do we surmise what her intimacy with Lord Steyne may have been. The narrative never reaches a higher intensity than drawing-room gossip: the bills are not paid, and his lordship calls every afternoon, etc. And the husband, who might have stood for a fine portrait of a wittol, is
rehabilitated before the admiring gaze of the Conventions when he dashes the brooches in the face of the prostrate lord. This scene has been much admired, but those who have admired it have neglected to give the reasons for their admiration; it is surely no more than one of those extraneous scenes resting on no psychological foundation, which litter the second-rate literature of the world.
The merit of “Vanity Fair" is in the design, in the placing of the characters, in the ingenuity with which the parts are linked together. But if we consider the quality of the mind reflected in this book, we become aware that it is at once trivial and commonplace. Fielding has been compared to Gillray and to Rowland
It would be difficult to show that Thackeray's merits are greater than those of Leech or Du Maurier. There is probably not a thought in the little moralities with which Fielding prefixes his chapters which Turgenieff or Balzac would have taken the trouble to write down. His reflections on life are commonplace enough, but they are not obsequious, like Thackeray's. Thackeray did not reflect the mind of the club: he identified himself with it, with the deadly mind of St. James's Street. He is spoken of as a satirist. Well, he twitted young ladies with wanting to get married, but why should they not want to get married ? His general outlook on life seems to be that if their mammas would allow them to marry the young men their hearts sighed for, the last reproach that could be legitimately urged against society would be removed.
The question whether the novelist should or should not comment upon his characters is a favorite theme with the writers of the literary articles in the newspapers, and the theme is suitable for the writer's purpose, for it is just one of those literary externalities which the casual reader can understand and be interested in. Nothing he likes more than that literature should be presented to him in the light of a card trick. You shuffle this way, and count ten from the king, etc. Narrate the facts, refrain from comment. That is how a superior modern fiction is written. And so the casual reader is happily led into a vague belief that literature is progressing; that the way to write perfect fiction has perhaps been found out. If the literary writer were to explain that a story cannot be written without comment, and that if it were done it would be intolerable as Bradshaw, and that it is not
VOL. CLXX.--NO. 521. 33
the abundance nor the paucity of comment but the amount of intellect that finds its way into the comment that matters, the ercitement of the casual reader would not be nearly so intense. He is aware that his intelligence is not deep, and that it cannot be increased, so he takes refuge in the cloud, he follows the illusion, the "Wild Duck.” After all, who knows? “Perhaps the trick has been discovered.”
The measure of a writer's intelligence transpires as much in his characters as in his comments, and no more. He may have more faculty in one direction than in another, but the true critic is never deceived; he reads the barrenness of the writer's mind though his comments are reduced, as in Maupassant, to a few phrases, and he divines the great bulk of Flaubert's mind in a single phrase; and he reads Balzac's universal mind as well in his characters as in those multitudinous discourses, so numerous that it would be vain to attempt a summary.
Dickens, Thackeray's contemporary, was a man of a deeper and a more richly colored temperament, a man of genius, but one whose genius did not meet with circumstances favorable to an intimate and energetic development. He partakes so largely of the nature of his time that it is open to doubt he achieved any serious literature. In the end it comes to this, that the English novelist does not occupy a higher place in literature than the Italian operatic composer does in music. A story is told of Rossini which might be very well told of Dickens. Rossini had been to hear Wagner, and meeting a friend, he said, sighing, "I too was gifted, and if I had been brought up in Germany I might have written music.” Rossini knew the truth; he knew that his natural gifts were of a very high order, but they were uncultivated, and he knew they would remain uncultivated because he was wanting in energy of mind.
Dickens lived in a time when England had grown inaccessible to ideas, in an age in which facts alone seemed · to be worth acquiring, and it is to his credit that in an honest or a
simple and unsuspicious way he seems to have been aware of the materializing influences at work, that a second crystallization had begun in England. Mr. Gradgrind is not a great, clear vision of the century's end, but in a limited way Mr. Gradgrind shows that Dickens was not incapable of philosophic speculation. man's vision is proportioned to the light of his time, and it is impossible to imagine an English Victorian writer creating such in